New Documentary Film Highlights Stories of Rural Volunteer Firefighters

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Of the 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S., 700,000 volunteers provide vital services to rural communities. The author's sister is one of those volunteers. Pictured here are volunteers from her Rice Lake, Minnesota, Volunteer Fire Department. (Photo from Rice Lake Volunteer Fire Department Facebook page)

Volunteer firefighters are the backbone of rural emergency response in the U.S. And yet, the number of volunteer firefighters dropped to a low in 2020, even while calls have more than tripled in the last 35 years -- those due in large part to a sharp increase of emergency medical calls.

To tell the story of volunteer firefighters, John Deere and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) have joined forces to support a new documentary film titled "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." The film tells the stories of the volunteer firefighter in the U.S. today.

It is no secret in any rural community that the volunteers are key and highly valued first responders. Volunteers are always there. Think structure fires, often involving old buildings and tinder dry. Or grassland fires that destroy everything in their fast-moving path -- family homes, barns, livestock, machinery, even fence lines.

Volunteers make steep-angle and confined-space rescues. They respond to grain bin accidents, accidents with machinery and their associated gears and belts that both crush and rip. Rollovers. They're there in all types of natural disasters -- tornados, hurricanes and floods. Dangerous water rescues are on their list of skills. Volunteers manage hazardous materials spills, and in a sign of the times, are on scene during active shooter emergencies. And there are always medical emergencies.

Small communities (populations under 10,000) across the U.S. are typically protected by all-volunteer departments. Of the 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S., nearly 700,000 are volunteers. Of the total 29,452 fire departments in the country, 18,873 are all volunteer and another 5,335 are mostly volunteer.

My sister, Sue Graberm, is a retired volunteer firefighter. She responded to pager calls for 21 years with the Rice Lake (Minnesota) Volunteer Fire Department. The department, which has been in operation since 1948, is 100% volunteer and covers 34 square miles in northeast Minnesota. Rice Lake Volunteer responded to 245 calls in 2022.

"It was that accident, you remember," she told me. "I just wanted to give back for that." Sue was in a horrible automobile accident before she moved from Illinois to Minnesota. She remembers those first responders on that day and how they were the first link in the chain of care that eventually led her to recovery.

That Sue became a volunteer firefighter was a surprise to our family, sort of. When we thought about it, this was Sue just being Sue. Those who know her understand her "damn the torpedoes" kind of determination.

Her worst calls involved children, she told me. But volunteer days were often good days in Sue's life. "I enjoy giving, and this was a way to help other people. I learned a lot and spent a lot of time with good people. Besides, it was nice to get an 'atta girl' once in a while, too."

It seems a volunteer firefighter is never fully retired. Sue began the chain of care for a man near her home a bit more than a year ago on a January day. He had an accident in his garage and was unconscious. Sue started CPR. The man survived after five days in the hospital, no small part to the emergency care Sue began. "That's the kind of thing that gives you a good feeling," she said. For that save, Sue was given the Rice Lake department's Good Citizen Award.

Deere counts a good many rural firefighters and emergency responders among its numbers. Deere employees recorded more than 13,000 hours in 2022 volunteering as firefighter and emergency responders.

"Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat" will soon be released nationally, and producers hope those who watch it will be inspired to sign up to be volunteer firefighters through the NVFC's "Make Me a Firefighter" campaign.

Many John Deere dealers provided financial support for the film's distribution. All John Deere dealers will be able to use the film free of charge to help local recruitment efforts of volunteer firefighters.

To see the trailer for "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat" go to:….

For information about volunteer firefighting go to the National Volunteer Fire Council, visit

For more information about Deere, go to

Dan Miller can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @DMillerPF


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